Interview by Samuel Elliott
Jane Novak is a literary professional with twenty-five years experience in bookselling and publishing. She is passionate about Australia’s local industry and the creation and promotion of Australian books and writers. The Jane Novak Literary Agency represents writers across all genres as well as a number of literary estates.
Has the role of the literary agent changed since you started? If so, how?
The main part of an agent’s job is to assess the work of their writers, help them to get it ready for submission to publishers and then to guide them through the publishing process. The Covid-19 lockdown meant that a lot of things were temporarily stalled or put on hold; publishers moved books due to be published mid-year to later in 2020 or into 2021 which then had an impact on their acquisitions of new titles. This in tandem with the sharp downturn in book sales overall meant that agents had to think hard about which kinds of books publishers might be receptive to at such a difficult time. This in turn might lead to the decision to hold of submitting a particular book until the market had returned to some equilibrium and publishers were feeling more confident.
With your decades of experience, from working within publishing to now being a literary agent, you’ve come through all the disasters that have happened – like the closure of Borders/major book retailers, the advent of e-books that were supposedly set to revolutionise the way novels were sold, and the almost indelible closure of brick and mortar bookshops, I wanted to know if all of those paled in comparison to this COV-19 pandemic? Did any or all of those ones have (either short or long term) repercussions as significant as this pandemic? What makes this pandemic so, for want of a better word, special? Or is it not actually all that devastating thus far?
The collapse of Borders/Angus & Robertson was a huge blow, it knocked out a significant chunk of the market in one go but good independents and online retailers like Booktopia thrived in the vacuum and the market recalibrated. The challenge that the advent of ebooks posed had more to do with the adaption of new technology than anything else. I’m not sure that anyone ever really thought that it would mean the end of print books. Likewise, while it’s always very sad and sometimes even devastating to see a good bookshop close, something new seems to spring up in its place. A few years I could not have imagined an online retailer being voted Australia’s favourite bookshop but that’s exactly what happened in a few short years. Covid-19 is different in that we don’t have an end point for it which makes it very difficult to plan around. We felt for a moment that the country might have come through the worst but then suddenly Victoria is all but shut down again and there are more reports about catastrophic job losses. The full impact of the virus on the economy has yet to be felt or calculated and while I obviously think books are enormously important I’m also aware that for large numbers of Australians they are luxury items.
What impact have you encountered so far with COV-19 – are you receiving less submissions?
Covid-19 hasn’t slowed the number of submissions I receive but I am not submitting as much to publishers as I would normally.
On a related note, I’ve read that the resultant economic downturn has caused publishing houses, major and boutique, to have redundancies and generally shrink their business to weather the worst of all this – have you found that publishers are taking less or being even more selective about what interests them?
Publishers have by and large kept most of their staff on. I only know of one house that made redundancies while others shortened the working week for staff for a period of time. The industry shows signs of recovering but although the majority of publishing staff are back at work full-time, most are still working remotely. Publishers’ acquisitions are always impacted by whatever is happening in the market and like every artform book genres come and go out of fashion for a myriad of reasons. Literary fiction has been particularly difficult to sell for some time now and the economic shutdown hasn’t improved sales in that area but particular kinds of non-fiction are doing well. People tend to forget that publishing is business; a commercial venture. It is a very labour-intensive industry, and it takes a lot of people to make a book and get it to market. The margins are very slim and every investment in a book and its author is a calculated risk. In fact, the only thing that is certain is the risk, regardless of the book.
Despite substantial job loss across the board, some figures have found that book sales have been somewhat on the rise since lock-down – to me (a layman with little understanding of how figures translate to the current climate of the market) – I take that as a promising sign – do you agree with that? Or have you in your experience, found that to not be the case?
There was a spike in book sales in the first weeks of the lockdown but there was also a spike in the sales of toilet paper. In both cases the spike reflected the panic felt by the community on being told they would need to stay in their homes for a long period of time. Book sales then dived by around 20% alongside the majority of retail, people tend not to spend money in a crisis and particularly not without job security. While sales have begun to recover now, the huge volume of returns publishers are receiving from bookstores means these are not an accurate picture of what’s happening overall.
Do you think a trend could emerge of COV-19/Lock-down themed books might arise from all of this? Have you started to notice/encounter any such titles submitted to your own agency along those lines? Do you think that such titles could be well received or do you think that that might fall under the ‘writing to a market that’s going to change by the time you’re finished’ trap?
So far the only trend for book buying seems to be that people are reaching for trusted favourites or brand name authors. Pure escapism seems to be what most of us want, (and who could blame us!) so increased sales for crime, thrillers and women’s commercial fiction goes hand in hand with an upswing for streaming platforms like Netflix and Stan.
In terms of submissions, I haven’t yet seen any COVID-themed books but that’s not surprising given this has only happened in the last six months. I don’t expect to receive anything for at least another 6-8 months and it’s impossible to know if the market will be receptive to those books. Things are changing too quickly to make predictions.
On a positive look to the future, what good do you think could come out of all of this for the industry and for authors? What would you like to see happen?
I really have no way of answering this. The crisis is still unfolding and we have no way of knowing how long it will last or what the new ‘normal’ will look like. But one of the glaring inadequacies of the government’s financial assistance program was its failure to support artists of all kinds. I would hope that every time one of us turned to a good book, film, television series, listened to music or gazed at photographs or a painting for solace during this time remembers that. We all need to place a higher value on art and writing.
Do you think that this pandemic and its aftermath could alter Australian stories? Will there still be room for the stories we were telling before all of this?
Stories are a way of exploring and explaining our reality so any major event, whether it be a climate event or a pandemic, will shape not just the story but the way the story is told. All of us are already thinking back fondly on the recent past in which we were able to travel freely, embrace one another and get together in large numbers so undoubtedly this will impact how we live and communicate in the future. Our present always influences the way we interpret the past and Covid-19 is no exception.
What advice would you give to authors and/or anyone else in the industry, during these times?
The same advice I give myself. To try and remain positive and to remember the resilience that has always categorised our industry. The world will always need stories, we don’t know who we are without them.
About the interviewer: Samuel Elliott is a Sydney-based author and interviewer. His work has appeared in The Southerly, FilmInk, and The Big Issue, among others. He is currently working on a historical-fiction novel, Eden Says, in between interviewing fellow writers and his job, working for a streaming platform. Find him at: www.facebook.com/samuelelliottauthor